Pride in the Field

Out in the Field

By Anson Mackay, UCL


This post is part of our Pride in the Field Series, organised in collaboration with the Pride in the Field project at the University of Leeds. More information and further reading about that project can be found here.


Imagine undertaking research fieldwork where you had to either deny you had a partner / husband / wife, for fear of your project being cancelled, or to lie about the gender of your partner.

Imagine being on fieldwork where your friends and PI lie about your sexuality, either to keep you safe or to minimise risk to the project.

Imagine being at an international meeting where someone starts to call you offensive names in public to shame you, just because you mention your partner’s name.

Imagine being told on fieldwork that you look straight and this should be taken as a compliment.

Imagine being told on fieldwork what sexual activities you are expected to like.

Imagine being told that it’s a shame that you’re not sexually available.

These have all happened to me on fieldwork and in international meetings because I am gay. I’ve often found it a paradox that one of the privileges of being a geographer, being able to undertake fieldwork to deepen our knowledge about global threats to natural ecosystems, also poses some of the greatest barriers to me and other LGBTQI+ people remaining in the discipline.

Fieldwork in Geography is an essential part of the discipline, no matter what stage of your career, and fieldwork serves many different purposes:

  • Programme-level fieldwork that allows students to experience a range of geographical disciplines in the field, such as undergraduate and postgraduate taught fieldwork;
  • Subject-level fieldwork where students experience practices and methodologies connected to a particular geographical discipline or subject;
  • Self-organised fieldwork, for example to collect original data for taught programme dissertations
  • Self-organised fieldwork to generate or collect original data for PhD research
  • Self-organised and co-organised fieldwork associated with post-doctoral research and research associated with grant funding more generally.

For LGBTQI+ people each of these forms of fieldwork poses barriers to being yourself that need to be navigated, often on a constant basis. This is made all the more difficult for women and people from under-represented minorities, who face increased threat while on fieldwork from harassment and assault. Even the fear of danger in unfamiliar territory causes anxiety.  For LGBTQI+ people, this can be especially stressful when fieldwork is required in one of over 70 countries (almost half of which are part of The Commonwealth) that criminalise consensual, same-sex sexual activity. In 11 of these countries, homosexuality is punishable by death, while 15 of these countries also criminalise the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people. A deeper, and more widespread understanding of these barriers would go a long way to making Geography a more diverse and inclusive discipline.

What steps can departments take to make Geography fieldwork more inclusive?

For programme- and subject- level fieldwork, consider the location of your trip. Do you really need to teach students in a country that has laws that are actively hostile to LGBTQI+ people? Implementing an inclusive risk assessment tool for travel and fieldwork should ensure that all protected characteristics are considered.

Co-design best-practise in the field (e.g. a fieldwork code of conduct) with a diverse range of people, including those who are LGBTQI+.  Course leaders, research supervisors and PIs need to take a proactive role in assessing potential dangers and threats to those undertaking fieldwork and this should go beyond the physical activity. While most risk assessments make statements to take care of physical threats, more could be done with respect to considering who is at heightened risk with regard to disability, ethnicity/race, gender identity/expression, religion and sexual orientation.

Put into place a policy of zero-tolerance for any form of harassment and bullying. This should explicitly include protections for LGBTQI+ people. It is also important to have clear lines of reporting: ideally LGBTQI+ people should be able to report to LGBTQI+ staff, or staff who have undergone ‘Allies’ training. In this respect, it’s also useful to ensure that all fieldwork staff have undergone training on what constitute harassment and bullying, and how to be an active bystander, so that they feel comfortable in challenging any inappropriate behaviour. Providing students especially with training about what harassment entails would also be of benefit because, as Muckle (2014) succinctly puts it, “It is important not to forget that the primary targets are usually the most vulnerable— students— and they may not understand what is acceptable”.

Fieldwork should be one of the most engaging aspects of Geography, not one that many participants will dread. Fieldwork needs to be inclusive for all, irrespective of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religious beliefs, and be accessible to all regardless of disability and socio-economic status. Adopting policies and a work culture that recognises the diversity of geographers and emphasises inclusivity, will go a long way to ensuring that fieldwork, an essential component of our discipline, works for everyone.


About the author: Anson Mackay is a Professor of Geography in the Environmental Change Research Centre at University College London. He works on the impact of climate change on freshwater ecosystems.

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